During Soviet times, the capital of the autonomous region of Mountainous Karabagh was moved to Stepanakert, while Shushi, located four miles to the south, became an Azerbaijani center.
In the years of the Karabagh war (1989-1994), the strategic importance of Shushi, situated on a mountaintop overlooking Stepanakert, acquired more relevance for Azerbaijani forces in Karabagh after the occupation of Khojalu by Armenians in February 1992. The town became the main base for the indiscriminate shelling of Stepanakert with Soviet-built GRAD multiple rocket launchers. These launchers were capable of shelling 40 rockets at the same time and cause enormous damage to the civilian population. Over 2,000 people were killed in Stepanakert as a result of Azerbaijani shelling in the first months of 1992.
The capture of Shushi became imperative to end the relentless bombing of Stepanakert and the suffering of its population. The plan was finalized on April 28 and the order of attack was given on May 4, 1992. However, various reasons caused a delay of four days.
Members of the ARF battalion celebrating the liberation of Shushi in front of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in 1992.
The military operation was directed by Commander Arkadi Ter-Tadevosyan, who had a force of 1,200 members of the Self-Defense Forces of Karabagh, divided into five companies. The Armenian forces were complemented by four tanks and two attack helicopters. The Azerbaijani defending forces counted 1,200 people in Shushi, where the civilian population had been already evacuated, and some 800 around the town. A Chechen volunteer contingent led by guerrilla warlord Shamil Basayev (who was among the last to leave the city and was killed in 2006 in Chechnya) had reinforced the Azerbaijanis.
Shushi was attacked by the flanks and the rears in the twilight hours of May 8, as the ridge facing Stepanakert was easier to defend. There was a full engagement by midday, and the ending to the battle was envisioned in the evening, when Armenians, occupying favorable positions around Shushi, allowed the enemy forces a corridor for retreat.
|Members of the ARF battalion celebrating the liberation of Shushi in front of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in 1992.|
The victory at Shushi had a crucial importance in the Karabagh war. The Armenian forces immediately launched an offensive over the corridor of Lachin, which was central to the connection between Armenia (Goris) and Karabagh (Stepanakert), and occupied Lachin (nowadays Berdzor) on May 18. The consequent falls of Shushi and Lachin triggered the deposition of Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov.
The liberation of Shushi was of enormous symbolical value, as it represented the recovery of a city that had been abandoned for more than seventy years to Azerbaijanis. In the last twenty years, Shushi has been slowly recovering its Armenian profile and population, with the white and imposing silhouette of the nineteenth-century Ghazanchetsots Cathedral (which had been converted by Azerbaijanis into a deposit of GRAD launchers) standing completely renovated as a symbol of resilience and faith in the future.